Thursday, June 10, 2010

Day 206 - Of Old Stories and Old Bones

          Nelson loves to tell stories. He always has. But, whereas story telling used to be just one of a number of things he liked to do by way of entertaining people, it is the only thing left that he can do given his current physical limitations. Since it is the only thing left to him, he does it often and repetitively. Sometimes he will tell the same story several times a day. This is more endearing than not because, in spite of his failing memory, he is still pretty good at storytelling.
My wife and her sisters have taken to recording his stories to put in a book for posterity. He mostly focuses on tales of his childhood and his adventures in the South Pacific during the war. Some of these are quite good. You can tell that he has been practicing them for a long, long time.
Nelson has always been keen to keep people entertained. He doesn’t like a lot of quiet. Quiet is unnatural to him, and since he spent most of his nearly 90 years in the familial company of four daughters and a wife I don’t guess that I ought to be surprised by that. By contrast my family is reticent. My wife, who thought that I was unnaturally quiet, even to the point of catatonia, was surprised to hear from my mother that I was the ‘motor mouth’ of my family.
          Nelson sometimes took his desire to entertain too far. Such was the case when my parents first met Nelson and his wife. We all met up in Kentucky at Nelson’s home. My parents traveled down from Dayton, Ohio, and my wife and I came up from Florida. Nelson immediately undertook to entertain my dad with mixed results. The two actually had a lot in common. Both were veterans of WWII. Both were quietly brilliant. Both had failed business ventures. Both were still married to their first wives—the mothers of their children. Both were the patriarchs of larger families than they had come from.
Despite all the similarities however, their interests were very different. Nelson was a hobbyist and tinkerer. He loved to camp and fish and hunt. He loved to build things in his basement. He loved to fix things. He had a workshop full of sophisticated tools, many of which he had made himself, and some of which he had conceptualized and designed for specific purposes.
My dad on the other hand seemed to have no interests at all outside his work. He did not build or fix things. The only tool with which he had even a passing acquaintance was a hammer, a tool he most often employed to whack recalcitrant devices into relative submission.    
          So my father was less than impressed when Nelson’s first official act as host of the occasion was to whisk him away from my mother and take him down to the basement to glory in the manliness of Nelson’s shop. It wasn’t just that tools held no fascination for Dad, and it wasn’t just that he thought that building one’s own furniture was a monumental waste of time better employed in earning the money necessary to buy one’s own furniture from a furniture making professional—although certainly both these things were true.
In addition to the lack of any philosophical involvement in Nelson’s tour of the shop were Dad’s physical discomforts. Dad had been wounded in World War II. He’d served as a radio operator aboard a B-17 bomber. He flew missions out of England over Germany—one of the most dangerous occupations in the war. The survival rate for B-17 crewmen at its worst was a mere 20%. In other words, only one of every five airmen made it all the way to the end of his tour alive and uninjured.
Dad flew only two missions before he was injured. He got hit by anti-aircraft flak when he was on his way from the radio station to man his machine gun. A jagged ten inch wedge of steel shrapnel shattered his ankle. They pulled a two inch long triangular bar out of his leg when they tried to put him back together. He saved the offending piece of steel in a box with his Purple Heart.
          Even after several surgeries to repair the damage he walked with a pronounced limp for the rest his life. By the time he met Nelson he had been limping on that gimp leg for 40 years—a great deal of it on cold, damp concrete floors in cow barns and meat packing plants. The cold and damp and the limping had conspired to ruin his hip as well. The last thing Dad wanted to do was climb down stairs into a cold basement to look at a table saw and a jointer/planer.
Nelson had a hard time understanding Dad’s lack of enthusiasm for the obviously wonderful stuff he kept in his shop. Dad on the other hand never understood why Nelson wouldn't just stand around in the kitchen sipping highballs and swapping off-color jokes like a proper Yankee. The two never got together again after that first meeting, but I never talked to either one of them in all that time without them asking after one another.

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